On Monday, the Blue Jays announced it’ll be Matt Shoemaker, not Hyun Jin Ryu, who starts Game 1 of the wild-card round at Tropicana Field. Ryu emerged from his final regular season start “a little sore,” according to manager Charlie Montoyo, but the left-hander was still available to pitch if needed. Instead, the Blue Jays opted to give him an extra day of rest in a decision that will have consequences all series long.
So begins the tactical back-and-forth between Montoyo and his longtime colleague, Kevin Cash of the Rays.
“They want to kick your butt every time you play them,” Montoyo said. “But I have the same feeling.”
Starting with the Blue Jays’ lineup, here’s a closer look at some of the strategic decisions Montoyo and his staff will face in Game 1.
Does Alejandro Kirk play?
It’s only been 25 plate appearances, but Alejandro Kirk has impressed at the plate with a home run and a .983 OPS. Now, the Blue Jays must decide whether they believe that small sample portends further success at the plate for the 21-year-old. Considering how well Kirk has handled velocity so far, his chances of starting against left-hander Blake Snell seem good.
With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slated to start at first base, the Blue Jays will have the DH spot open should they want Danny Jansen’s experience at catcher. But Kirk did work well with Shoemaker last week, so a start behind the plate can’t be ruled out entirely.
How soon does Robbie Ray start warming up?
Technically speaking, Shoemaker is the starting pitcher Tuesday. It’s a big job, and one Shoemaker’s definitely excited to accept, but this is far from an ordinary outing.
The only way Shoemaker’s pitching deep into this game is if he stays incredibly efficient and the Blue Jays take a lopsided lead early. Otherwise, it may well be a relatively short appearance for a couple of reasons. First, Shoemaker has made only one start since returning from the injured list, and he’s only been stretched out to 54 pitches.
Second, the Blue Jays can’t afford to let Rays hitters get comfortable, so they’re better off asking multiple pitchers go max effort for relatively short stints. In his start against the New York Yankees last week, Shoemaker touched 96 m.p.h., so the stuff is there even if he’s not fully stretched out yet.
But at – or ideally before – the soonest sign of trouble, the Blue Jays will need to think about who’s next out of the bullpen. At this point, the odds seem good that the first pitcher up could be Robbie Ray, whose electric but erratic arm the Rays haven’t seen this year.
With Shoemaker starting, there’s a good chance Cash loads up his lineup with left-handed hitters. By bringing in Ray, the Blue Jays would gain the platoon advantage – or force the Rays to empty their bench.
“That’s one thing when you play the Rays: they’re tough to match up against because they’re loaded,” Montoyo said. “They really are. Whoever comes off the bench to hit is a pretty good hitter, too.”
When and how does Pearson become a factor?
The Blue Jays are relying on Shoemaker in a big way after just one appearance back from the injured list. Why not do the same with Nate Pearson? The right-hander impressed in his first outing in five-plus weeks, touching 101 m.p.h. while flashing a plus slider.
When he’s on, that combination is extremely tough to hit, so it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays may be tempted to use Pearson. But they’ll want to be careful with him considering he missed extended time with a forearm strain, so there’s seemingly a good chance he can only pitch once in the wild-card round. With that in mind, the Blue Jays will need to be selective.
Plus, Pearson’s been a starter for his entire pro career, so the Blue Jays will want to give him ample time to warm up instead of rushing him into a game mid-inning.
How do the Blue Jays manage the bullpen?
Because the Blue Jays locked up a playoff spot Thursday, they were able to use the weekend to ensure their heavily used bullpen got a breather.
“That was one of the good things about clinching,” Montoyo said. “They’re all rested going into the series, so that makes me feel really good about it. Anybody can come in at any time.”
Still, that doesn’t tell us who will get the call in high-leverage spots. As the season has progressed, the answer to that question has changed constantly for Montoyo depending on who’s healthy and pitching well. There’s no reason to believe the playoffs will be any different – only now the stakes are higher than ever before.